Maths matters to those with golden bones

10 03 2014

Pythagoras has been called ‘one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history.’ Mathematics as we understand it today began with Pythagoras and also Philosophy itself as he was the first to use the word ‘philosophy.’ He is also credited with applying the term ‘cosmos’ to the universe. His ideas blended together mathematics and theology and directly influenced the philosophy of Plato and in turn St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the rationalist philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant.

As Pythagoras wrote nothing little is reliably known about the man behind the right angle triangle, which is still getting people worked up in maths tests. Some legends describe Pythagoras as the son of the god Apollo and accounts of his  miraculous, shamanic powers are fantastical making him seem like a character from a Greek myth. He was supposed to have travelled to the underworld and back and he could remember his previous lives. Reputedly Pythagoras could speak to animals, including eagles and bears and if that weren’t enough weirdness he also had a golden thigh which he liked to show off at parties. Some scholars have doubted whether he even existed at all. Perhaps he was made up by the cult of the Pythagoreans.

What is known is that Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, a particularly violent and corrupt Greek island ruled by a tyrant called Polycrates who practised a Machiavellian style of leadership, dispatching his brothers when they got fed up with his wicked ways and using his own navy to make raids on foreign fleets. Understandably Pythagoras decided to take his golden bones elsewhere and he moved to southern Italy where he set up a religious society in Croton (some sources spell it Kroton). His disciples were loyal, but the citizens of Croton turned against him and he had to flee to another part of Italy, Metapontion, where he worked until he died.

Pythagoras was the first to understand that numbers, if they are real at all, are eternal and outside of time. Such was the power and purity of numbers that the early disciples believed that they had discovered the secret to God’s thoughts. The Pythagoreans discovered that everything in the universe is based on numbers. This mystical cosmology relates to patterns in nature from seeds to shells to the rings in the bark of trees, and the markings on insects, birds and animals. For those early thinkers, numbers were the key to understanding the mystery of nature.

The understanding of numbers led to advances in astronomy, physics, engineering and meteorology. Any discipline requiring data and statistics can trace its lineage right back to the Pythagoreans. The beauty of numbers is expressed in the forms of architecture, painting and music. Without an understanding of numbers civilisation and culture as we know it would not have developed in the way it did.

Given the importance of numbers, it’s interesting to note that recent headlines about the state of British education claim that ‘schools are going backwards.’ The reason is that today’s pupils are seemingly worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. A report showing literacy and numeracy tables for 24 countries ranks England near the bottom at 21 and 22 (below Poland and Estonia in one report I read, and of course that must mean Brits are really and truly off-the-scale thick).

The ‘damning report’ shows that Japanese school leavers are more advanced than graduates from British universities (given that some of these same graduates would of course be Japanese, I’m not sure how this works, but you get the idea). The thrust of the reports is that action must be taken if the United Kingdom is not to fall drastically behind, remaining the dim-wits of the world, forever assigned to selling programmes and hotdogs at the great game of life. The question is what has happened to Britain’s world-class education, a system that used to be the envy of the world? How come children in the Netherlands and Finland end up more literate and numerate than British or American children?

Education minister Elizabeth Truss has been visiting China to see how things are done there. Working class Chinese children typically score higher at maths than middle class British kids. That must be so galling for those parents who are shelling out huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools, when any son or daughter of a Chinese factory worker will easily beat them in the race of life, well at the very least a maths Olympiad.   Simon Jenkins, writing (ranting) for the Guardian online says that there’s nothing like maths statistics for sending people mad.

“It is maths that has the mesmeric appeal. To Gove and Truss it is virtually a state religion…. Stuff the little blighters full of maths, they demand, and Britain will again rule the world. Square the hypotenuse, and Johnny Taliban will beg for mercy.”

Aside from letting off steam, Jenkins does raise some interesting questions about the relevance and importance of mathematics in education today. Why is there such a focus on testing the mathematical ability of school children? Why are humanities A levels now failing to attract students convinced that they need ‘proper’ subjects like English, science and maths? Why don’t we instead teach primary school children about old golden legs Pythagoras himself?

I have to say that I’ve never used any O Level maths knowledge in any real life situation, but then and again, I don’t use French much either. What interests me is why the British education system is (statistically, it has to be said) failing our children? Why is it that the children of Chinese hospital porters do better at school than children of British doctors and lawyers? There seems to be an assumption that the system itself is the key to success. Culturally the UK and China are worlds apart. Few parents and teachers of British children would welcome the Chinese system of nine-hour tests and drills. One newspaper commentator reminds readers that a couple of years ago film images of Chinese students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips to keep them going in the classroom while they studied for their entrance tests went viral on social media. What is also interesting is why the education minister picked China when the Netherlands (or dare I say it Poland) is so much closer to home?

Pythagoras has no idea of what he started.



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